F O U R
Infinity 7’s main rockets rumble on Platform A. Hydrogen steam spews out onto the launch pad. John stands on the gangplank leading to the capsule. Decked out in flight gear, and with the help of a technician, he’s about to secure his helmet.
Dr. Lee stands nearer the capsule and is already helmeted. He gives John the thumbs-up as he is escorted toward the ship. John smiles and reciprocates, then turns to the technician. Raising his voice above the rumble, he says, “Give me a second will you, Arty?”
“We have five minutes’ leeway, sir. I can safely give you three.”
“Good.” John heads to a small utility box on the walkway scaffolding, leans against the pole and unzips an arm pocket to produce a small communication pad. He places the comm pad on the box and presses the Home button. Sarah appears in a twelve-inch rectangular hologram projected in front of him.
“Hey, have you seen my daughter? She’s about so big…” John holds a hand waist high.
“Dad, I’m taller than that.” Sarah looks off to her right. “Grandma, it’s Dad!” She looks back at John. “She’s teaching me how to cook with the oven. We’re all set to watch the lift off. What are you doing, are you ready to go?”
“I’m about to get strapped in. I just…” He breaks off, wanting to tell her again how much he loves her, that everything is going to be okay, but suddenly feels needy and it quiets him. “Just…take care of your grandmother. Okay?”
“Okay. Remember, Dad: back in three weeks, right?”
Tears well in her eyes. John takes a step back so she can see his full suit. “Hey, look at me.” He smiles, has a ta-dah moment. She wipes her eyes. “See you in December, Sarah.”
“See you then,” she says. Her image freezes, then fades. He stares ahead, feeling more alone than before. The excitement of the mission, the noise, and the rumbling thrusters recapture his attention. The technician walks over and holds out his helmet.
“Are you ready, Doctor?”
The main rockets shake every ounce of blood in the astronauts’ cores as they are propelled at twenty-seven thousand miles per hour, pulling 3 gs through the earth’s atmosphere. John’s body compresses. The G-force, the importance of the mission, his life’s work, and the memory of Karen conspire to crush him as he struggles for breath. After a few torturous seconds, the force dwindles sharply and he breathes deeply. The booster rocket fires and he is slapped back into his chair. He feels like a grape squeezed between the fingers of a giant. The thrusters are jettisoned. The noise decreases sharply and he is released from gravity, weightless. Karen didn’t make it this far, he thinks.
Strangely detached from his immediate post-liftoff checklist, he forces himself to stare at the indicators in front of him, back to the tasks at hand. A trajectory chart illuminates and comes into focus. Dr. Lee’s voice startles him, as it breaks through on his headset.
“Ripping atmosphere, eh John? Like tearing a new arsehole.”
“You got that right, Michael.” John turns to see Lee smiling, as he presses buttons and flips switches, thoroughly composed and studious.
“Computers locked in, navigation checks. We’re on target.”
“Ground Control confirms trajectory looks good.”
John checks navigation off his list, and examines the console above his head. A green line displays their path. Ground trajectory maintains the tight parameters set for the mission. This is only John’s third journey into space in ten years, and he’s beginning to remember how his body reacts to such violence.
Lee nods to John. “Take a deep breath. The long ride is about to begin.” He moves to the navigation console.
Even though John is still nauseous, he gives him the thumbs-up. “Copy that, Dr. Lee. The long ride. Only, not so long now is it?” Lee smiles and touches a button, which throws the navigation hologram up into the center of the capsule.
The capsule had been originally designed to house up to six crew members, each sitting inverted and opposite one another in a circle, but the craft could easily be maneuvered by a single person. The tops of the two men’s helmets face each other on opposite sides of the command capsule at takeoff, then the seats automatically shift to an upright position upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
The intelligent design of Infinity 7 utilizes and enables vocal commands if the need arises. Having plotted the course at Command prior to departure; all that is left to do now is initiate the Navigation Drive.
Ground Control chatter breaks into the cabin. “We’re all good here, Infinity 7. Trajectory is on target. Control is yours, in three, two, one—”
“Confirm, we have control,” says Lee. “Roger that, Ground.”
“Have a safe journey, Infinity 7. Here’s a little something we found in the archives.” “Space Oddity” by David Bowie is piped into the comm feed.
John groans. “This one again? Put that puppy to bed, Command.” The song stops.
Dr. Lee presses a manual switch on his console. “Initiating Navigation Drive.”
“Roger that, Infinity 7. You have navigation. Ground Control out.”
A distinctive, provocative female voice responds, “Initiation of navigation is engaged.”
After a few seconds of silence, Lee says, “How do you like that?”
“Not very official.”
“You want me to change it?”
“No, that’s okay. I enjoy the twang.”
“That bit of Southern twang she has.”
“I hadn’t noticed any regionalism.”
“Oh yeah, there’s a twang. Upper crust Southern. North Carolina, maybe? Mild, but noticeable. Voice of a…let’s say, middle-aged female.”
“You’re quite the regional expert, Dr. Collins. I’m impressed.”
“Nah. I used to live in North Carolina, then went to school at Texas Tech. Finished up at M.I.T.”
“That part I knew.”
Although they are traveling at nearly eighty thousand kilometers per hour, the ride is smooth, and once they acclimate to the weightlessness, somewhat uneventful. Although they still use the conventional hydrogen booster thrusters to leave Earth’s atmosphere, the speed in which they travel is much faster than the older missions. The first orbiter to reach the moon took three days to reach lunar orbit. Now, thanks to the new MEPS propulsion system, which allows for constant acceleration, they can make the trip in seven hours. Approximately ninety minutes to reach the halfway point and another four hours of deceleration. The remaining time will be spent normalizing trajectory, velocity, and prepping for a safe docking.
The Super Microwave Electronic Propulsion System, or MEPS, had been developed by Galileo Labs in La Jolla, California and first used during the Metis 1 missions, some ten years earlier. The faster trip was possible since MEPS allowed for a continuous propulsion through space, rather than using an occasional thruster burst. The first mission to Saturn, scheduled for early next year, should take only ten days.
John’s thoughts turn to a newer system currently in development and enabling time/warp propulsion. This new unit, expected to be rigorously tested starting early next year, should be capable of initiating time/space to warp in front of the vehicle, allowing much faster travel than conventional propulsion, theoretically reaching speeds beyond that of light. For now, though, MEPS is the best system available, and Metis 3 still uses conventional thrusters to maintain a safe lunar orbit.
John looks up from the navigation data, curious about the computer vocalization program. “Computer, what’s the origin of your vocal accent?”
“My voice pattern and regionalism is a reconstruction of actress Sarah Crenshaw’s vocal idiosyncrasies. She was a popular multimedia actress born December 30, 2025, and died January 19, 2075 from cerebral—”
“That’s enough.” He turns to Dr. Lee. “See, Michael, I told you.”
“Good catch. I don’t remember Sarah Crenshaw.”
“She was good. I saw something she’d done at a retro media theatre a few years ago. Don’t remember the name of it. Some interstellar war flick. It adds spice to the voice though, don’t you think?”
Lee is setting up his new camera. Similar to an Ultra Drone, it is compact, fast, and silent, and capable of responding to voice commands.
“Is that the Smarteye?”
“Check this, John.” Lee holds a small, sleek teardrop-shaped object in the palm of his hand. “It can reach speeds up to fifty miles per hour and altitudes of up to twenty thousand feet, for up to two hours. It has multi-lens capabilities including close up and panoramic, makes instant three-dimensional holograms, and works in low light situations. Any light at all. Even in the dark.”
“Impressive, but does it do portraits?”
Lee doesn’t stop to acknowledge the joke. “This camera can recognize and analyze most anything—chemically, tactically and digitally. I’m linking it to our mainframe right now. It makes instant visual data streams and analyzes everything it sees. It also scans faces and does an instant media and background check of all known databases on Earth.”
“Chem-tactile sensing. I’ve heard of it. Gases too, I think. Yes?”
“Absolutely.” Dr. Lee releases the camera, and it flies freely around the command capsule, recording and analyzing everything in its path. “Right now it’s recording the mission, using my preprogrammed parameters.”
“That’s fine. But remember, I get to see results first, before any public release.”
“Of course. Hey, as good as the auto editor function is in this thing, I much prefer to do all the editing myself. You’ll be the first to see it.”
John nods and smiles at Lee. “Okay. Let her rip.”
Lee points to the camera already in motion above them, then gives the thumbs-up.
“Michael, I want you to take a look at Infinity 7’s propulsion system data stream as it comes off the station.”
“Sure.” Dr. Lee begins pushing buttons and downloading the reports.
John gives him a passing glance. He can tell Lee doesn’t care about the computer voice. He doesn’t have much of a personality, but is great with analytics. It’s part of the reason he wanted him on this trip. And he’s a fine physician, as well.
Residual queasiness from the liftoff has left John unsettled. “I’m feeling a bit nauseous. I’m going to catch a few winks. See you in about an hour.”
John looks again at his crewmate, who doesn’t look up from his calculations. This invokes a feeling of security as he sits back in his chair. The camera buzzes overhead, and he smiles. Lee is having fun, and that’s fine with him.
To be continued…